The move of US President Barack Obama abruptly canceling his scheduled meeting and initially refusing to shake hands with President Rodrigo Duterte at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Laos, is being overhyped by the western media and even by some local journalists as a rare international snub with perilous implications.
True, it is a rare diplomatic spat between close treaty allies but it will hardly make a dent on US-Philippines relations, especially coming at the twilight of Obama’s presidency. In fact, after calling off the sit-down with Duterte, the US President reiterated his promise to Asean leaders that the US was “here to stay” in Asia. And more recently, before leaving the Asean summit in Laos, Obama told reporters that he doesn’t hold a grudge against Duterte since he does “not take these comments personally…”
Vowing that the United States’ interests in the Asia-Pacific are “not a passing fad” and that his country’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region will endure “for the long term,” Obama professed that majority of his country’s navy and air force fleets will be based out of the Pacific by the end of the decade.
Seeing China’s rising economic power and blatant maritime expansion in the South China Sea, Obama – who once billed himself as “America’s first Pacific President” – vowed four years ago to rebalance US economic and military resources to the Asia-Pacific region, the main theme of his “pivot to Asia” policy.
Whether Obama likes it or not, the Philippines – with its vast coastline bordering the South China Sea – is the mainspring of America’s pivot to Asia, more so after Manila obtained a favorable ruling on the Washington-backed lawsuit against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague, Netherlands.
This explains why the Americans will be reopening five military bases in the country after a long absence – an inevitable outcome after the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
The US also poured $259-million in maritime security aid to the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia – all of whom have territorial claims in the South China Sea – supposedly help these countries in safeguarding their waters, as the Americans try to ward off China’s growing military presence in the region.
Truth is, America cannot afford to lose any more “friends” in the region. As it is, much of Southeast Asia is already tilting toward China.
With billions of dollars in Chinese investments and loans, Cambodia and Laos are already in China’s corner. Sources from the diplomatic corps point out that Cambodia’s objections during the foreign ministers’ meeting last July is the reason why the Asean failed to issue a joint statement on the Hague ruling, which rejected China’s sweeping claims on the South China Sea. Thailand is reportedly tilting the way of China, too.
Duterte, on the other hand, is bent on charting an independent foreign policy even if this means warmer relations with China. Duterte has already said he would not bring up the arbitration ruling so as not to hamper upcoming talks between Manila and Beijing.
The way we see it, however, a key component of Duterte’s independent diplomatic policy should be a “pivot” to Japan.
Our Japanese friends tell us that Duterte has a lot of goodwill in the Land of the Rising Sun. Even during the campaign, Duterte already caught the attention of the Japanese media with his straight talk and fearless demeanor.
Duterte’s reputation for imposing discipline and security, and cutting red tape in his hometown has some Japanese referring to Davao City as the Philippines’ “Little Japan.” Japan is also one of the few countries that maintain a consular office in Davao City. So it is not an exaggeration when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said our President was “quite a famous person in Japan” during their bilateral meeting.
They likewise point out that Tokyo is openly courting Manila to become its closest regional ally, with Abe sending his top adviser and envoy to meet with Duterte in Davao City several times since the elections.
With the uncertainties surrounding the US elections in November, Japan is a safer bet – and an equally important ally – for the Philippines. For one, Japan (not the US) has been the Philippines’ top trading partner and the number one source of investments and bilateral official development assistance (ODA) since 2014.
At the Asean summit last week, Tokyo promised to give Manila two large patrol vessels in the 90-meter class – similar to the largest vessels in Japan’s coast guard fleet – in addition to the 10 smaller vessels it promised to provide during PNoy’s term. Japan also offered a loan for up to five used TC-90 surveillance planes.
This is on top of the $2.4- billion loan offered by Tokyo to build a new 38-kilometer (24-mile) elevated railway from Manila to Bulacan, touted as “one of the biggest Japanese projects using the yen loan.” Japan also offered to build a railway in the southern Mindanao in a bid to foil a similar project proposed by China.
Japan is clearly trying to offset China’s growing influence in the region by persuading the Philippines to remain steadfast in its commitment to maintain the “rule of law” at sea. Providing generous aid to Manila will encourage the Duterte administration not to waver, more so considering that both Japan and the Philippines are embroiled in a territorial dispute with China.
Duterte can seize this opportunity by securing better concessions from Japan such interest-free loans, sovereign guarantee-fee projects and more technology transfer deals. Definitely a much better deal than the vintage hand-me-downs from Uncle Sam.